alexis nexus

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Tyranny of the Questioner

In a recent post on her very own Online Journal, Alexis discussed some realizations she had that came about as a result of somebody objecting to the way she was having a discussion. The complaint, as I understand it, was that she was asking questions in a leading way, using semi-rhetorical questions to lead the others on in a way that tended to allow her to dominate the conversation; in a way that Socrates is often accused of having done.

Alexis says:
...and at some point eden said something that i thought was problematic about betsy's idea. "don't you think that… ?" came out of my mouth, and when she had responded with her take i came back with "but that… how does… ?" and then betsy jumped in, and called me on the way i was having a conversation. she very flatly said that she did not want to partipate further because i was engaged in a Socratic Dialogue, to which she did not wish to participate.

The Socratic dialogues are sort of notorious regarding whether or not Socrates was really a questioner who wanted to understand things, as he professed to be, or a guy who thought he had not only figured out a bunch of stuff but figured out a good way to convince others that he had gotten it right: Ask them lots of 'questions' to which they could mostly only answer "It cannot but be so!" until he had led them to a conclusion that they hadn't agreed with at the outset--a conclusion that, some say, Socrates had in mind to begin with. (Steve Martin has a great mock Platonic dialogue about a guy talking with Socrates about taking pictures of Madonna in her backyard with her top off, coming to the conclusion that 'it cannot be otherwise' that it's ok to do so; ok, it's funnier when Steve Martin explains it.)

I'm not a scholar of ancient philosophy, so I probably shouldn't comment too much on whether or not/how much Socrates was guilty of doing that sort of thing (and if he was, well, he did get the hemlock in the end, so he paid the price now, didn't he?). Still, I have to say that I think that if I recognized that somebody was doing what Socrates if often accused of doing (whether Lex was doing it or not in the above particular case), there are many other options besides opting out of the discussion (although I understand why opting out might be the most attractive option--simplicity, for one thing, and a nice little protest against the whole Socratic(?) line of questioning for another). For instance, howabout not agreeing? There is a reason that the so-called Socratic Dialogues don't sound much like dialogues at all (a performance of such dialogues, which is something I sort of tried once, would come out about as stilted as my 5th grade story about my friend Mike and I who travelled to a mystical land to befriend elves and engage in swordfights--anybody else butcher Tolkein as a kid?)---because they're not really dialogues at all. They are a series of questions and answers, where the questioner is generally the same person and the answers are generally nodding of the head sort of answers, simple affirmatives with no discussion of possible problems with the questions. If any of Socrates' interlocutor's would have just said, "Um, Socrates, where are you going with this? It seems to me that your question sort of ignores x, y and z, and as such doesn't really tell us anything, (etc)" then the 'dialogues' would resemble their namesake a bit more.

Answering the question, questioning the questions, these seem to be viable alternatives to opting out of a discussion because one thinks one is being led down some primrose paths. And these options have the advantage in that they facilitate more talk instead of cutting off roads to inquiry. Asking "Do you really mean that as a question, or have you decided what you think and you're asking that rhetorically?" seems to be one way to go.

But I think Lex's larger investigation is an even more interesting one:
...if an individual asserts an interrogatory position (while others do not), then the conversation becomes more about answering that individual's line of questions (socratic or otherwise), than about the more egalitarian flow of ideas (or the opportunity for letting one's ideas flow) among all participants. this is important for me to understand, and, i think, explains for me precisely how it is that i (or anyone else, for that matter) can dominate a conversation. good to know, good to be aware of as i'd like to be intentional about such things.

I myself have been accused of dominating conversations in this way (probably was accused of it more often after I read some Plato!), and I've gotten the sense that Alexis has dominated conversations in the past this way (although more often than not any domination I feel regarding conversation with Alexis is the prevelance of non-sequiter humor--or simply references I don't get :). Then again, it seems like most of my friends have 'dominated' conversations this way...which may just show that I've got a skewed sample.

I think that it would be a mistake to think that questioning in the way that Alexis seems to have questioned ought always be considered 'dominating' a conversation. (Not that Alexis is claming this, exactly, I'm just taking what she said and riffing on it.) That is to say: It's more complex than that. First of all, there can be very good conversations where one person dominates, I think, in this way. Sometimes when one person really does know a lot more than another the conversation can go this way for a while and be very productive for both people. Which brings me to my second point, which is that the timing involved is important, I think. Asking a question may indeed highlight the questioner's contribution, make the conversation focus on the questioner and the like, but it's extremely important for the concept of domination of a conversation, I think, for that sort of thing to happen for some extended period. Imagine if nobody ever asked a question during a conversation (i.e. if nobody ever 'dominated' the conversation in this way)...certainly those conversations can be had and can be worthwhile, but so can ones where people genuinely (or not!) ask questions.

I suppose a more simple way to put my point is this: If asking questions is always dominating a conversation, then it seems to me we have to also add that dominating a conversation is sometimes/often something that's ok to do, at least for a little while.